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Bulimia Nervosa - Topic Overview

Bulimia (say "boo-LEE-mee-uh") is a type of eating disorder. People with bulimia will eat a larger amount of food than most people would in a similar situation, in a short period of time (binge). Then, in order to prevent weight gain, they will do something to get rid of the food (purge). They may vomit, exercise too much, or use medicines like laxatives.

People who have bulimia judge themselves harshly on their body weight and shape. In order to help them cope with these feelings, they follow a strict diet to try to lose weight. But over time the hunger from the strict diet triggers them to binge eat. After binge eating, they feel out of control, ashamed, guilty, and afraid of gaining weight. This distress causes them to purge, in hopes of "undoing" any possible weight gain from the binge.

Without treatment, this "binge and purge" cycle can lead to serious, long-term health problems. Acid in the mouth from vomiting can cause tooth decay, gum disease, and loss of tooth enamel. Any type of purging can lead to bone thinning (osteoporosis), kidney damage, heart problems, or even death.

If you or someone you know has bulimia or another eating disorder, get help. Eating disorders can be dangerous. And willpower alone is not enough to overcome them. Treatment can help a person who has an eating disorder feel better and be healthier.

All eating disorders are complex problems, and experts do not really know what causes them. But they may be caused by a mix of family history, social factors, and personality traits. You may be more likely to have bulimia if:

  • Other people in your family are obese or have an eating disorder.
  • You have a job or do a sport that stresses body size, such as ballet, modeling, or gymnastics.
  • You are often on a diet or you exercise too much in order to lose weight or change your body shape.
  • Have a poor body image, or feel that your body should be slim like many people in the media.
  • You are the type of person who tries to be perfect all the time, never feels good enough, or worries a lot.
  • You are dealing with stressful life events, such as divorce, moving to a new town or school, or losing a loved one.

Bulimia is most common in:

  • Teens. Like other eating disorders, bulimia usually starts in the teen years. But it can start even earlier or in adulthood.
  • Women. But boys and men have it too.

While bulimia often starts in the teen years, it usually lasts into adulthood and is a long-term disorder.

People with bulimia:

  • Binge eat on a regular basis. They eat larger amounts of food than most people would in a similar situation, in a short period of time (2 hours or less). During a binge, they feel out of control and feel unable to stop eating.
  • Purge to get rid of the food and avoid weight gain. They may make themselves vomit, exercise very hard or for a long time, or misuse laxatives, enemas, water pills (diuretics), or other medicines.
  • Base how they feel about themselves on how much they weigh and how they look.

Any one of these can be a sign of an eating disorder that needs treatment.

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